Celebrating the Women Who Broke the Glass Ceiling in Rock’n’ Roll

By Bob Scarborough

When the music conversation turns to who was first, there are a number of positions you can take when rock music is concerned.

Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog” in 1956 and some say with that song, R & B music was positioned squarely in the path of Rock’n’ Roll as Elvis’ gyrating hips sent a generation shaking and grooving to a sound never heard before. Now here is where you can state that the song was written for someone other than the King.

A few years earlier, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton stepped into the studio at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles and recorded “Hound Dog,” receiving only $500 for her efforts. Her version hit No. 1 on the R & B chart and sold nearly two million copies. The song was written for Thornton by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Janis Joplin caught Thornton’s show at a Bay Area blues club and recorded a song that Thornton had written, “Ball and Chain.” The song’s publishing was signed away by Thornton and she could not enjoy the fruits of her creativity when Joplin’s version was released.

Bonnie Buckingham, known as Bonnie Guitar, began playing guitar by age 13. Born in Seattle, Washington in 1923, Bonnie began writing songs in the 1940s and by 1948 released her first single, “The Two-Timin’ Yodeler,” with her band, The K-6 Wranglers. By the mid-‘50s, Bonnie moved to California, released songs under Bonnie Guitar and became involved on the other side of the glass, in the studio as a producer. In the late 50s, her record company, Dolphin Records, had hits with the Fleetwoods where she produced and played guitar on “Come Softly To Me” and “Mr. Blue.”

Half a continent away, in 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. was setting up shop in Detroit, Michigan, and on January 12, 1959, Tamla Records was launched. A year later, a name change and a new focus on the new generation and style brought about the largest hit-making machine of the era. Motown girl groups like Martha and The Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Mary Wells, and Diana Ross & The Supremes held 6 out of 10 of the top 100 singles released by girl groups that came from Hitsville, USA.

Early 1970s saw a transition in music that included the rise in popularity of rock bands that brought an emerging style of album-oriented rock and live concert tours. The self-proclaimed “Godmothers of Chick Rock,” Fanny, was the first all-female rock band to sign with a major label. The group toured during the early 70s, released five albums, wrote and arranged their compositions, and toured … and toured … and toured, playing hundreds of live concerts. Many of today’s contemporary female rockers, Joan Jett, Girlschool and many more, agree that Fanny paved the way for their success.

Throughout the decades, women have played an important role in music, promoting what they believed would make the industry better and just to simply follow their passions. Musically, we are all the better for the contributions made by them.

Bob Scarborough is a DJ with WTOB 980AM in Winston-Salem. WTOB is now on the frequency originally occupied by WAAA.


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